Third Culture Kid identity is a complicated and layered set of experiences, and everyone’s process is unique. There are, however, several models out there that can help us to better understand our own stories and help us to grow into the lives and relationships we want.
In my last post I introduced Erikson’s model of development which observes how we seem to work through different ‘questions’ at different ages. The successful answering of these questions wins us a ‘virtue’ or skillset that we bring to play as we move through different ages and stages. A glitch at any one of these stages complicates how confidently we move through our lives. BUT… identifying where the glitch happened is an opportunity for a ‘do over’ – a psychological and emotional revisiting can win us a missing or weakened skillset at a later stage in life. Basically, Erikson’s model offers more to Third Culture Kid identity than a diagnosis for where and when the problems we face came from – it offers us a mechanism towards healing.
And so the first ‘virtue’ we are to collect – HOPE.
And your first question: Do you trust the world?
Do you have a sense that people are reliable, trustworthy, and generally respond positively to you and your needs? Can you rely on them?
If not, we have our first glitch – and I suspect a deep sense of anxiety acting as an undercurrent to your interactions with those around you. I want to use this first post in this series to explore how we can address this. If you have a lack of HOPE in the world around you, let’s explore where and why Erikson sees that lack first kicking off.
Okay. So we are going way back today. Deep breaths. In. Out. This is pre-memory stuff for most of us so a fair amount of deductive reasoning is going to be involved. This is where curiosity is our best friend – and many of us Third Culture Kids carry identity curiosity around with us in bucket loads!
Let’s consider the first couple of years of our lives, our story. We are 0 to 2 years old, and we are (subconsciously and consciously) considering the question, “Can I trust the world?” Of course, for our young selves, for “the world” read “our caregivers”. They are our world. And according to Erikson, Bowlby and a tonne of other attachment theorists, we learn about the world by learning about our relationships with our caregivers. What we believe about them, we believe about the world at large.
Many of us are already twitching. Considering our experiences of our caregivers can be a challenging prospect. We may encounter conflicting feelings of love, gratitude, hurt, grief, delight, pride, shame and blame. Our early reliance on and our continuing bonds with our caregivers make any conscious examination of our experience feel conflicted. I hear you. And I invite you to consider it all the same. Soothe the inner conflict if you can by asserting your use of curiosity rather than judgment. It is possible to notice our own experiences without blame, if that makes the difference between your being able to contemplate exploration and having to shut the door on it.
So, with the door wedged open with a healthy dose of curiosity, let’s enter our Third Culture Kid identity stories in these early, early years.
What’s going on in the internal culture of your family?
What offers you data that the world is trustworthy? Are your parents happy? Supported? Well resourced? Is there consistency of care? Do parental styles between mother and father differ much? You probably can’t remember specifics so this is where we deduce – what do we remember about parenting styles? How can we deduce this to have been applied in our early years?
What’s going on in the external culture of your environment?
How many different caregiving cultures were you exposed to in the first two years of your life? Did you have nannies/ayahs? This was the case for many of us Third Culture Kids. Even where a formal nanny set up wasn’t in place, houseworkers may have taken on some caring responsibilities and development deep bonds with us over time.
Different cultures teach their children about the world in different ways, simply because different cultures interpret the world in different ways. Different cultures teach children to expect different experiences based on their own worldview. Fine. That’s how cultures work to sustain societies over time.
Except TCKs learn about multiple worlds almost simultaneously this way – which one do they trust? What is the impact of this on the development of our Third Culture Kid identity?
Can you consider for a moment the culture/worlds you had contact with in the first two years of your life (this might even include national cultures not represented by parents or host country, but simply because of a dominant national culture in your expatriate organisation)? How does it differ from the culture in which you now live? Which do you trust more? Which group of people represented by that culture do you place more trust in?
Context for our lack of HOPE
The aim of all these questions is, of course, to lay some context down to our present situation. If I feel lack of hope I can decide it’s because…
a) I’m a hopeless kind of person (static problem, “I am wrong”)
b) The world is a hopeless place (static problem, “the world is wrong”)
c) My early complicated experiences lead me to believe that I can’t trust in the world (flexible problem, “There are reasons for feeling the way I do but new experiences might lead to a different belief)
Guess which one is my favourite?
If you can sit even somewhat comfortably with option (c), a whole range of opportunities open up to skill yourself with Erikson’s virtue of Hope. We can seek new experiences that offer us data that people are there for us. We can seek new experiences that develop our understanding of our current cultural context (how do people trust each other here?)
What these opportunities and experiences look like will differ person to person, TCK to TCK. But they are there. We can always add new data, new information to our stories, and write new chapters.
If you have identified some challenges here to your ability to trust the world, and want to look at exploring your Third Culture identity further, get in touch here. I’d love to work with you as you walk into new experiences of self, trust and hope!